By Lynn Betts
In a "hotspot" of nitrate loading in water draining from agricultural land, farmers and conservationists closest to the issue are convinced their science-based, cooperative approach is the best pathway to better water quality.
Farmers in the Boone River Watershed in Iowa, one of 640 selected watersheds across 13 states included in the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), are receiving incentives to use practices that reduce the amount of nutrients in water leaving their farms. They get special EQIP and other USDA conservation program payments to use cover crops, nutrient management, no-till and strip till, bioreactors, and other practices intended to cut nitrate losses from the farm.
But there's more to the initiative than offering bonus payments. There's an emphasis on monitoring water quality, with a real effort to ensure the money both farmers and USDA are spending on improvements are having the intended effects. For instance, a three-tiered monitoring and assessment approach evaluates water quality at edges of fields, in streams, and over the entire watershed.
Monitoring since 2007
"Farm and environmental groups started working together for better water here about ten years ago," says Eileen Bader, a staffer for The Nature Conservancy in the Boone River Watershed since 2009. "Farmers in the watershed wanted to know what the numbers were, how much nitrogen was in the water. At that time, there was only one site collecting water samples and water quality data. That led to the Iowa Soybean Association and TNC partnering in 2007 to get baseline water information every two weeks from April through August from all 30 sub-watersheds in the Boone River watershed, and the Iowa Soybean Association has continued that sampling to this day. That amounts to more than 2,000 samples a year."
Some call the Boone the most studied watershed in the country. It was identified by the U.S. Geologic Survey as a stream with high nitrate loads early on, and TNC chose it as a priority stream for conservation action more than ten years ago. The monitoring in the past five years followed an ecological assessment of the entire watershed by TNC in 2001, and coincided with a TNC Conservation Action Plan that identified nutrient loading, altered hydrology, and habitat loss as top priorities for watershed work in 2008. Iowa State University, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and NRCS have also been involved in studies including a rapid watershed assessment and nutrient loss modeling.
A partnership model
All the studies and all the monitoring is helping farmers as well as conservationists learn firsthand how well the practices are working -- that's part of the MRBI emphasis on monitoring and partnering to make measurable improvements in water quality.